Why Martin Luther Now?

By James Reston, Jr.

Why a new play about Martin Luther now?

Of course, no writer, at any time, need apologize for returning to a great story of history. Even if the basic facts are the same, there are always new insights. The cliché that every generation reinterprets these old chestnuts in the light of its own experience, is certainly true. Revisiting the Luther story now, however, is especially urgent.

Last year’s 500th year celebration of Luther’s seminal attack on the Roman church with his 95 Theses created some confusion as well as enlightenment. It was argued in certain historical and even theatrical circles that Luther was both insane and an anti-Semite. That he was intense and perhaps on the verge of insanity at times is indisputable. Who wouldn’t be close to crazy if both the hounds of religion as well as the soldiers of the most important king in Europe, Charles V, were trying to track you down and burn you at the stake. It is also indisputable that Luther wrote scurrilous anti-Semitic tracts at the end of life, when he was old and dotty. That has nothing to do with his heroic and improbable challenge to the Vatican in the years of 1517-21 over Church abuses like indulgences when the fate of his Reformation hung in the balance. Luther is not a perfect founding father for Protestantism. That makes him all the more interesting as a character for the theater.

There is also the widely held misconception in our Anglican-dominated society that Protestantism began with Henry VIII. Actually, Henry’s dispute with the Vatican came years after Luther’s. Whereas Luther’s challenge was squarely about church abuse and doctrine, Henry’s confrontation with Rome was a royal vanity over the preservation of the Tudor line, occasioned by the king’s dismay over his queen’s inability to produce a male heir. Ironically, Henry excoriated Luther in the harshest terms for his disobedience to Rome, only to come running to the Reformer later for support if not for divorce at least for bigamy.

This Saturday the audience will be treated to a towering performance by Hugh Hill as Luther, and to Howard Coon’s quirky, fascinating portrayal of pope, Leo X, Luther’s nemesis and the first Medici pope. Leo X was a hedonist and probably an agnostic who brought the great art of Michelangelo and Raphael to Rome, and bankrupted the Vatican in the process. The play also features a bit of gender-bending as Stephanie Mastri brings a powerful female voice to the unlikely role as a 16th century cardinal and future pope.

In the context of the current moral crisis in the Catholic Church, you will see Luther arguing 500 years ago that the forced celibacy of priests leads to perversion, abuse, and hypocrisy. Pay attention to how Karen Hochstetter as a temptress and John Lesinski as the captain in charge of Luther’s house arrest play out this theme, as Luther struggles with his own sexuality. With Luther’s blessing, priests scrapped their vows and married wholesale. And of course, he himself would eventually marry. Celibacy, Luther said, was the work of the Devil, and if you don’t believe it, you get to see the Devil himself in action, with Judge David Tatel in a star turn.

 James Reston, Jr.’s play, “Luther’s Trumpet”, will be presented at Stone Hill on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. More information here.

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